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The Wars of Charlemagne, c. 770 - 814

Davis Introduction: Most of Charlemagne's reign was consumed with wars in which he was usually victorious. He never had to confront a first-class enemy in battle, and his martial father and grandfather had transmitted to him the well-trained Frankish army. He cannot, therefore, be called a distinguished general. His wars, however, were of high importance for history; especially the conquest of the Saxons and the Lombards implied the bringing of much of Germany and Italy into the circle of "The Holy Roman Empire," and of medieval civilization.

After bringing a war in Aquitania to an end, he was persuaded, by the prayers and promptings of Hadrian, Bishop of Rome, to undertake a war against the Lombards. Already before him his father [Pepin] had assumed this task, at the asking of Pope Stephen, under great difficulties, for certain Frankish chiefs of his very council, had opposed the proposal so vehemently as to threaten to desert their King and go home. Notwithstanding, the war against Astolf, King of the Lombards, had been undertaken, and promptly brought to an issue. Now [773 A.D.] although Charles had similar, or rather precisely the same grounds for declaring war that his father had, the war differed from the former both in its hardships and its results.

Pepin, to be sure, after a brief siege of King Astolf in Pavia, had compelled him to give hostages, to restore to the people of Rome the cities and castles he had seized, and to swear that he would not try to take them again. Charles, however, did not turn back---once war was declared---until he had exhausted King Desidarius by a prolonged siege; then forced him to surrender unconditionally. He also drove his son Adalgis, the last hope of the Lombards, not only from his kingdom, but from all Italy. He likewise restored to the Romans all they had lost; crushed Henodgans, Duke of Friuli, who was scheming revolt; reduced all Italy to his sway, and set his son Pepin over it.

The war ended with the subjection of Italy, the banishment of King Desidarius for life, the expulsion of his son Adalgis from Italy and the restoration to Hadrian, Primate of the Roman Church, of all the conquests by the Lombard kings.

As to the Saxon war, no war ever undertaken by the Franks was waged with such persistence and bitterness, or cost so much labor, because the Saxons, like almost all Germans, were a ferocious folk, given over to devil-worship, hostile to our Faith, and they did not consider it dishonorable to transgress and violate all law---be it human or divine. Then, too, special circumstances caused a breach of the peace daily. Accordingly, war was begun against the Saxons and was waged furiously for thirty-three consecutive years [772-804 A.D.] on the whole to the disadvantage of the Saxons. Much earlier surely it would have terminated but for the perfidy of the Saxons. It is hard to tell how often they were conquered, humbly submitted to the King and promised to do what was commanded, gave the required hostages and received the royal officers. Sometimes they were so abased that they promised to renounce "devil-worship" and adopt Christianity. Nevertheless, they were as prone to repudiate these terms as to accept them. It was actually impossible to tell which came easier for them to do. Hardly a year passed from the beginning of the war without such changes on their part.

The King, however, pressed them with unvarying purpose despite great difficulties and either took the field against them himself, or sent his counts against them with a host to wreak vengeance and exact due satisfaction. The war that had lasted so many years at last terminated when the Saxons gave way to the terms proffered by the King; namely, the renunciation of their native religious cults and devil-worship, the acceptance of the Christian sacraments, and union with the Franks into one people.

The Saxon war began two years before the Italian war, but although it went on continuously, business elsewhere was not neglected, nor did the King hesitate to enter on other equally severe contests. Excelling, as he did, all the princes of his time in wisdom and magnanimity, he did not suffer difficulty to turn him back, nor danger to daunt him, from any task to be assumed or carried to a conclusion.


From: William Stearns Davis, ed., Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols., (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-1913), pp. 373-375.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text may have been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall, August 1998
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